CSKA Sofia provided Liverpool with the first genuine test of a European Cup defence that commenced on the lowest rung of the qualifying ladder, yet their emphatic response, polished by the two-goal performance of Fernando Morientes, not only made their passage into the group stages of this season's Champions' League a formality, but suggested they will present a more purposeful threat than ever when they get there.
In the face of a lively, neat yet unthreatening Sofia side, Liverpool remained unfazed and finally, after relying almost entirely on Steven Gerrard for inspiration during the qualifying phase, produced the solid team display their manager has demanded all summer. Fine preparation for the start of the Premiership season at Middlesbrough on Saturday.
Gerrard, of course, was central to the victory, creating all three goals in the Bulgarian capital but it was the performance of the Liverpool strikers, and in particular Morientes, that provided the greatest satisfaction for Benitez.
Much of CSKA's pre-match confidence was based on their reputation for ending the reigns of existing European champions rather than their Bulgarian record of 30 domestic titles. Three times they have taken the Continent's prized scalp, that of Ajax in 1974, Nottingham Forest in 1981 and Liverpool a year later, though an inability to repeat that feat for the past 23 years has cost that reputation any intimidating advantage it once had.
Those home supporters in a half-empty stadium not put off by extortionate ticket prices were encouraged by an adventurous start from CSKA who, with three men behind lone striker Guillaume Zadi, sought to stretch both Liverpool full-backs from the first whistle. However, for all their invention, they had engineered only one difficult chance for Zadi before the visiting attack gave Liverpool a commanding hold on the tie.
The pace of Djibril Cissé and power of Gerrard provided Liverpool with rare encouragement during a difficult opening, but when they combined in the 25th minute they displayed more penetration than CSKA ever had. A feigned Gerrard shot helped disguise a pass though the Bulgarian back line to Cissé, and the £14m striker took his tally to four Champions' League qualifying goals with a clinical left-foot finish beyond Evgheni Hmaruc.
Six minutes later what was already a fine scoreline in the circumstances took on a more impressive hue when Morientes answered the pre-match calls for him to start reproducing the form of his Real Madrid and Monaco days. Again Gerrard was the provider, this time with a free-kick from the right, and the Spanish international rose in front of the Sofia keeper to head into an empty net.
Yet, with CSKA appearing deflated, there was time for them to resurrect their chances on the stroke of half-time when Velizar Dimitrov ghosted in between Gerrard and Stephen Warnock to head Mourad Hdiouad's left-wing cross beyond Jose Reina.
However, given the porous nature of the CSKA defence, their hopes of a comeback rested on the most suspect of foundations. The home side never came to terms with either Cissé's speed or Morientes' ability to drift away from his marker. The Spanish international was revelling in the freedom CSKA allowed and, having hit the post when sent clean through by Xabi Alonso, in the 58th minute he beat Hmaruc once again.
For the third time in the match Gerrard was able to claim an assist, collecting Cissé's deep cross inside the penalty area and picking out Morientes who, despite having his back to goal, turned and sent a low shot on the turn through the goalkeeper's legs.
Right at the death Reina did well to stop a low shot to his right and Liverpool held on to their advantage.
CSKA Sofia (4-2-3-1): Hmaruc; Matic, Zabavnik, Gueye, Silva; Hdiouad, Todorov; Yanev (P Dimitrov, 35), V Dimitrov, Gargorov; Zadi (Yordanov, 80). Substitutes not used: Ivanov (gk), Maksic, Matko, Yurukov, Sakaliev.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock; Garcia, Gerrard (Sissoko, 70), Alonso (Hamann, 64), Riise; Cissé, Morientes (Barragan, 79). Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Baros, Whitbread.
Referee: J Wegereef (Netherlands).Reuse content